Polycarp of Smyrna: An Insight into the Life of a Bishop and Martyr

We have little information regarding the early life of Polycarp. Most commentators give his birthdate as approximately 69 A.D. and his birthplace as Smyrna, a city of Asia Minor which is now the site of Izmir, Turkey. Some say he was raised by wealthy parents, while others argue that he was brought up by a devout Christian woman, Callisto.
Polycarp in his youth was an eager listener to the word of the Apostle John. These treasured moments at the feet of the most beloved apostle must have been a great source of strength for the young Christian who was just beginning to face the cruelty of an Antichristian world. John’s words must have painted a vivid picture of Christ’s life for all who listened. Even Polycarp’s letter to the Philippians, written many years later, reflects a great faith within him that must have been prompted by the beautiful testimony John had given of his Saviour. “…believing on Him who raised our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead and gave Him glory and a throne at His right hand, to Whom are subjected all things in Heaven and earth…” (15 – p. 144).
While still a young man, the Apostles appointed Polycarp to be the bishop over the flock at Smyrna. The tasks of the bishop were many and important. He was the actual head of his appointed church, taking charge of the presbyters and deacons, and serving as a sort of minister. Polycarp knew the importance of this office, and could often be found in deep and humble prayer before his God. Perhaps the words of J. C. Kee can explain why the man, young, yet strong in the faith, Polycarp was chosen for this work. He tells us that “the true leader of the congregation is the one bishop. As the guardian of true apostolic tradition and as the center of unity around which the Christians gather at the Eucharist, he is the God-given bulwark in the fight against heresy” (11 – p. 414).
This was truly an important office to hold. Even the Bible gives command to the bishop who is to use his office properly. In Titus 1:9, we read that this can be possible only by “holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine to exhort and convince the gainsayers.”
The church at Smyrna was a small, but very faithful church that as the others also experienced trouble. When Polycarp became the bishop, the foundations of that church were already being struck by heavy blows, both outside and within her. Three basic problems tormented her, heresy, a colony of trouble-making Jews, and the rise of paganism. The Bishop especially despised the heresies, for they could always so subtly creep into Smyrna.
Within Polycarp there had grown a fear of losing the truths given him by the Apostles. It was known that he would scarcely speak to those who offended him greatly by not speaking this, so precious a thing to lose at the time. The leader of the sect, the Marcionites, was especially a torment to Believers at this period of Church history. Polycarp, one day in the city of Rome, met the evil man. It seems that Marcion asked, in this story told later by Polycarp’s famous pupil, Iranaeus, whether Polycarp knew before whom he was standing. Marcion must have felt a stunning blow when Polycarp answered, “I know you to be the first-born of Satan” (10 – p. 138).
Polycarp did not end his refutation of false beliefs with this attack upon those who tried to quell the Christian truths of the Resurrection and the Last Judgment. He also attacked the Docetism so prevalent in his own pastorate. The bitterness he felt for those who denied directly the coming of Christ in flesh and indirectly His suffering and great torment physically, was brought out in his only remaining letter, which was written to the Philippians. “To deny that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is to be Antichrist. To contradict the evidence of the Cross is to be of the Devil” (14 – p. 147). It must have been a hard task for this shepherd to bring back his wandering sheep. They had the very words of the Apostle, John, before their eyes, and their own bishop to witness of the truth of these words, “and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1:14). Yet they insisted upon rejecting them for words which offered no comfort at all to the sinner who wants proof of the forgiveness of sins.
John, the exiled Apostle on the island of Pergamos, penned words of comfort to these tried saints of Smyrna, reminding them that their suffering and torment of soul was not for a futile cause. “I know thy works, and tribulation, and thy poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the blasphemy of those that say they are Jews and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan. Fear none of those things which thou shalt suffer: behold, the devil shall cast some of you into prison, that he may be tried; and ye shall have tribulation ten days: be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev. 2:9).
What an inspiration these words must have been to Polycarp and his church. Persecution was becoming more prevalent now, and it was getting much harder to hold fast one’s faith. The heathen games had come back and now the pagans were building their amphitheaters, one of which was placed in Smyrna. The infamous Jews, of course, had their part in the great celebrations that were taking place. The cry during one of the great festivals rang louder and louder in the arenas. “Away with the Atheists!” “Away with the Atheists!” again and again the throngs in the amphitheater shouted.
The bloodthirsty crowds clamored more and more for gams. They daily thronged to the gates, but today was even more busy. A celebration even more exciting was being planned for today. The people had reminded the Asiarch, Philip, to obey the laws of the great Antoninus Pius. The Christians were at last to be punished for their defiance of Caesar. Away with these Atheists! Have no part with those who forsake the gods of Rome! Bring them into the arena!
Philip selected eleven Christians to be executed. One by one they were torn cruelly apart by the angry lions in their frenzied rush for food. The crowds went wild with joy and delight. Now they got their reward, a torn and broken body, crushed by the savage teeth of the lions. Now let them tell us of the resurrection, they who have such faith!
Finally all is over. The last body has become shreds of flesh. The last soul has gone to the Creator. But lo … the throngs are not yet stilled. The people clamor for still more. The martyrs were eleven in number, but now they want to make it twelve. Now they wanted Polycarp, the eighty-sic year old Bishop of Smyrna. Philip gives the order and the soldiers set out to get the old man.
There is some doubt as to whether Polycarp here heard the news of their coming and fled to an old country farmhouse or that his friends persuaded him to leave.
We next see a band of Roman soldiers hurrying up the road to an old house. Commentators here disagree as to whether Polycarp greets them at the door or has his hiding place betrayed by a servant tortured into doing this, but all agree that upon his arrest, he feeds the guards and requests an hour in which to pray. Fox’s Book of Martyrs tells us that “he prayed with such fervency that his guards repented that they had been instrumental in taking him” (5 – p. 9).
The soldiers next proceed onward with their charge who gives no trouble to them, but rather enters into conversation with them. The High Sheriff, whose own sister is a Christian cannot understand why this old man does not remember his age and concede. “What is the harm,” says he, “in saying ‘Caesar is Lord’?” (2 – p. 15). But the words of the man fail to penetrate the stubbornness of Polycarp. He is on the way Home.
The arrival is rushed. The guards have forgotten that prayer, and now they are eager to please the throngs that await their arrival. He is brought to the Asiarch, Philip, who will decide if he can whether the man is guilty of being a Christian. The man himself will be weighed in the balances. Philip gives Polycarp three chances to save himself. First, he must shout “Away with the Atheists!” This he does, pointing to the true Atheists sitting in the galleries. Next he must curse Christ, and once over that hurdle, he has saved his life. But no – he will not give up his crown, but orders the Tempter off with the words, “Eighty-six years have I served Him and He hath done me no wrong. How can I revile my King who saved me?” One more chance is given. “Swear in the name of Caesar.” The answer is irrevocable. He is a Christian and will not deny his Lord.
He now is convicted for his stand against the evil represented by those around him. He will die.
Polycarp’s martyrdom is not an extraordinary one with respect to the means by which he had to be executed, but there are several interesting accounts of the way he died. The most interesting, but certainly not the most credible, account if found in the letter written by a great storyteller, Marcion, who wrote to the other churches an account after they had requested it of someone who had seen it. We read of his death that it took place on a day that we would figure to be February 23, 155. After his body had been chained to a post and surrounded with faggots by the Jews, the fire was started. According to Marcion, the body would hardly burn, but was as a loaf of bread in the midst of it. Because the mob had so eagerly awaited the death of this man who had insulted them by his gently reprimanding words, they were rather disappointed that he died so slowly. Therefore, Roman soldiers plunged a sword into the side of Polycarp. To the astonishment of all around, a dove came forth from that side, and the blood, readily flowing, quenched the fire (13 – p. 161).
So Polycarp died the lowly martyr’s death, not a victim, but a victor. He left behind no great earthly possessions, for his treasure was where his heart was, in the Eternal Mansions. And although many will never hear of his life, those who are given the opportunity can be greatly comforted by this.
The prayer he prayed, supposedly before he died, is recorded by Roland H. Bainton in The Church of Our Fathers. “Lord God, Almighty, Father of Jesus Christ, I bless Thee that Thou didst deem me worthy of this hour that I shall take a part among the martyrs in the cup of Christ to rise again with the Holy Spirit. May I be an acceptable sacrifice. I praise Thee, I bless Thee, I glorify Thee glorify Thee thru Jesus Christ” (2 – p. 16). This prayer can do two things to the true Christian reading it. First, it will make him ashamed if he has forsaken the path of Life at times to be a friend in all ways possible to the World, in order to save his own skin. If a man such as Polycarp, so old, and yet, so strong, could profess his faith before a whole multitude of heathens, without wavering, how then is it possible for the one who also claims to have strong faith to forsake his Lord in front of the one or two who might have mocked his religion had he not done this? The Christian should had he not done this? The Christian should also see that when he faces persecution or just simple taunting from the World’s representatives, his will be the greater reward. Polycarp even said in the face of danger, “you threaten me with your fire of persecution, but you forget the fire of hell that never goes out” (2 – p. 31).
His humility can also be equated with his faith, for in the Letter to the Philippians, he equates himself with his presbyters, when he even knew of the power he held over them! Such a strange clash is found when we read that the Bishops of Rome even took the power over those of the same rank for themselves, and gradually became infallibly speaking Popes.
The only written things he left behind are his Epistle to the Philippians and a creed that can be traced through the Bishops of Smyrna to him because of the knowledge we have of his beliefs.
The former was written to the Philippians by Polycarp when they asked for information from him about Ignatius, another saint who met his death by martyrdom. It opens with Polycarp’s praise of their “solid roots of faith” and then proceeds on with the admonition to hold fast the “True Hope and Pledge of Righteousness.” It concludes with words of comfort to those who greatly mourned the passing of Ignatius and of their fellow Christians who had to die in the amphitheaters.
The creed is a very interesting example to compare with our own final version of the Apostles’ Creed. It can be found in Early Christian Creeds, by J. N. D. Kelly. “We also glorify one God, but as we know Him; and we accept the Christ, but as we know Him – Son of God Who suffered as He suffered, died as He died, and rose again the third day, and is on the Father’s right hand, and will come to judge living and dead” (12 – p. 82).
The above creed, although it was finally written out in this form in about 180 A.D., is actually a compilation of what the bishops of Smyrna both taught and believed up until then. Therefore the creed is accredited, in part, to Polycarp. It is interesting to note, also, that this creed is relevant to us yet today. For those who believe that Christ was a kind man who should be to us an example worth noting, this is a warning. They who thus make Christ a good benefactor, and by this deny His important Work for us as the Son of God, can find for themselves an answer in the words of so ancient a doctrinal statement.
Polycarp’s only remaining words are few in number, when they are compared to the great masterpieces of famous painters, or documents of famous writers and political leaders that have also died long ago. His name is seldom, if at all, mentioned in famous books or speeches, but, yet, when it is mentioned, it is usually referred to as the name of a poor Christian who also had to lose his life. Reflecting upon the life of Polycarp, I find Paul’s words of Romans 8: 35-39 a fitting end to the story of a martyr who died to gain his crown by entering an arena. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, For Thy sake we are killed all the day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter. Nay in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8: 35-39).
1. Attwater, D., A Dictionary of Saints, Kenedy and Sons, New York, 1958.
2. Bainton, R. H., The Church of Our Fathers, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1941.
3. Bruce, F. F., The Spreading Flame, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., Grand Rapids, 1964.
4. Durant, Will, Caesar and Christ, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1944.
5. Fox’s Book of Martyrs, John C. Winston, Phila., 1926.
6. Fremantle, A., A Treasury of Early Christianity, Viking Press, New York, 1953.
7. Goodspeed, E. J., A History of Early Christian Literature, University of Chicago Press, 1942.
8. Grant, F. C., “Polycarp,” Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 22, 1968 Edition.
9. Hanko, H., “Polycarp,” Beacon Lights, June-July 1966.
10. Iranacus, Adversus Haereses, as translated by Maxwell Staniforth in Early Christian Writings.
11. Kee, H. C., et. al., Understanding the New Testament, Prentice-hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1965.
12. Kelly, J. N. D., Early Christian Creeds, Longmans, Green & Co., London, 1960.
13. Marcion, The Martyrdom of Polycarp, as translated by Maxwell Staniforth in Early Christian Writings.
14. Payne, R., Fathers of the Western Church, Viking Press, New York, 1951.
15. Polycarp, Epistle to the Philippians, as translated by Maxwell Staniforth in Early Christian Writings, p. 144.
16. Renwick, A. M., The Story of the Church, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., Grand Rapids, 19166.

Originally Published in:
Vol. 30 No. 8 December 1970